Lynn Canal plane crash victim credits faith, family with ‘miraculous’ survival

Martha Mackowiak returned to Haines on Sunday after spending two weeks in a Seattle hospital. She, her husband Mike, son Nik, and family friend, Victoria Hansen were on board the private plane that crashed into Lynn Canal on Nov. 4. Martha suffered severe hypothermia and cardiac arrest after swimming to shore. She had to be resuscitated twice. She credits a series of fortunate events, and overwhelming support, with her survival and speedy recovery.

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Martha Mackowiak at her home in Haines on Wednesday. (Jillian Rogers)
Martha Mackowiak at her home in Haines on Wednesday. (Jillian Rogers)

Sitting at her kitchen table on a recent chilly morning, Martha looks healthy and happy. She’s moving a little slowly, and she says she’s tired most of the time, but otherwise she feels good.

During our conversation, Martha used the word ‘miracle’ several times. She says on that day, a few weeks ago, as soon as she knew the plane was in serious trouble, she started praying and didn’t stop.

“Michael said I was within 10 feet of the shore when I dipped under. I was swimming mostly on my back and I kept turning around to see how much farther I had to go. There was bigger swell than I expected and that kept washing over me. That whole time I was praying ‘Lord, I’m not ready to die. Not yet. Please.’”

The flight started normally that day, she says. A little cloudy in Juneau, but nothing out of the ordinary. Martha and Nik were on their way home from a college visit in Idaho and were set to take the ferry back to Haines, but Mike offered to pick them up in their plane. Partway through the flight, the plane stalled.

“It was just like ‘oh my goodness, this is it, we’re going to go down.’ And he was looking for, hoping for, a beach landing. And when he turned around, he could see an area that had potential but just conditions with the wind and everything, he was quick to recognize that we weren’t going to make that beach. And so he set it down as best as he could and I’ve been told it’s a remarkable thing to be able to set a plane down in those conditions on the water. I know we skipped a couple times and I know we flipped, but I don’t remember realizing that we flipped. I just remember the water coming in and we just all got out. It felt like it was within seconds. He had us open the doors right before we landed because apparently sometimes the frame can interfere with that if there’s impact.”

She says, remarkably, everyone on board remained calm. Her husband gave them instructions as the plane headed for the water.

“He said ‘Have your hand on your seatbelt so that as soon we’re down you can get unbuckled’ and we just pulled right out. So we all got out and we crawled right out onto the wing, Michael was the last one out, his foot was stuck. So that was probably an instant of a panic kind of feeling when it looked like his foot was stuck, but he was able to pull his foot out of his shoe. And we could tell the plane wasn’t going to sit there very long, it was already tipping down. So we just launched off the wing to swim for shore. And I thought, probably naively, ‘There’s the shore, we can make it.’”

They all swam toward shore. Martha was just shy of the rocky beach when a wave overtook her. She says her son Nik jumped in and pulled her out. Mike resuscitated her when they made it to shore.

“I’ve been told that I looked like I was dead. I was pale and blue and it sounds pretty horrifying. But, I didn’t see any of that.”

She says she remembers waiting for help on the beach, but says at no point during the ordeal did she think about, or feel, the cold. After an hour or so, a Temsco helicopter was the first to arrive. But the nightmare continued. Once at Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital, she had a cardiac episode and had to be revived again. She also had to be intubated and was given warm fluids intravenously to get her core temperature up. Doctors then put her under to operate.

“Apparently there was a lot of pressure building in my abdomen from the salt water and gases and everything in there and it was putting so much pressure on my lungs and heart that it didn’t look good for me. So that’s when they decided to open me up and relieve that pressure. And it’s that cut that probably startled me awake, I’m guessing. It was very painful how they were pushing around in my organs and they had a suction hose that was getting stuff out. And then they prepared me for the flight for to Harborview. So, I have that bit of a memory, of the pain of it and being paralyzed. I didn’t know that I was paralyzed, but being somewhat aware and being like ‘Don’t they know that I’m awake and can feel this.’ I was trying so hard to move my hand or wiggle my foot or something, but I couldn’t.”

Then Martha was Medevaced to Seattle. She says she vaguely remembers being on the plane, which made it there quickly because of strong tailwind.

“The pilot said he’d never seen tailwinds like that, we got there in an hour and 40 minutes. That’s just another one of those little details.”

It took her a couple of days of recovery in Seattle before she understood what was happening. She says the outpouring of support and prayers continues to astound her. From friends and family far and wide, to the nurses and doctors who took care of her in Juneau and Seattle, and the Temsco pilot that rescued her off the beach. Horrifying as it was, Martha says the ordeal has turned out to be positive in many aspects.

“One thing that is just very sobering to me is that this story is not just a sweet, little story about how God loves us. This story is the bedrock of the Christian faith. This is death and resurrection. And that’s a tremendous gift that I’ve been given. I’m not sure what it means for me but there’s something there is just astounding to me. It clearly was miraculous.”

While she may have lingering effects from the hypothermia, Martha is expected to make a nearly-full recovery.